Every day for a week in early September, US Army soldiers travelled the same 10-mile route between Kinshasa's dilapidated Grand Hotel and the hilltop Congolese military training base overlooking the Democratic Republic of Congo capital. The Americans probably didn't realize it, but the wide, smooth, freshly-paved avenue they used, so incongruous in a city of potholed and unpaved roads, had recently been constructed by a growing rival—China.
The US soldiers were in Congo to help train up their counterparts in the Forces Armees de la Republique Congolese—the Congolese army. The two-week training exercise, organized by the three-year-old US Africa Command, was meant to extend Washington's influence in this rare mineral-rich but unstable Central African country. But Chinese road engineers had already been to Kinshasa to do the same on Beijing's behalf, using somewhat more subtle means.
That China and the United States are in a race to gain sway over countries possessing vital natural resources, not only in Africa but across the developing world, is hardly news. But the scene in Kinshasa—US troops speeding down a Chinese-built road—underscores the differing strategies Washington and Beijing have tended to pursue. While it has fallen on the US military to lead the country’s forays into Congo and other mineral-rich nations, most notably Iraq and Afghanistan, China has traditionally preferred underwriting infrastructure projects. Indeed, Chinese engineers are a fixture in developing country outposts as remote as Chad and Somalia.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Yet while the two powers approach the question of influence from different starting points, they are also increasingly overlapping in the way they develop their soft power—particularly in the use of their navies. Both countries have increasingly embraced hybrid military-humanitarian missions that could become more prominent as the US war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down.
Indeed, even as these conflicts raged over the past decade, the US has also been pioneering and developing large-scale soft-power missions, deploying military and civilian medical personnel, engineers and instructors aboard warships and airlifters across Latin America, Africa, the Caucuses, South-east Asia and Oceania. And, after a period of observation and study, China has begun copying the US approach.
Beijing's mimicry represents a tacit endorsement of the US efforts, and also coincides with similar initiatives taking shape in other wealthier nations, including Japan and the Netherlands. The United States has made sure to play an important supporting role in Tokyo's and Amsterdam's initial, modest soft-power missions, with Washington having long viewed soft power as an ideal venue for international cooperation.
Hospital Ships Ahoy!
The most visible soft power instruments are the high-tech hospital ships belonging to the US Navy and the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). In late August, the Chinese ‘Ship 866,’ a recent, reduced-scale copy of 20-year-old US hospital ships Comfort and Mercy, embarked on her first major cruise, sailing the Indian Ocean for three months delivering free medical care and training in Djibouti, Kenya, Tanzania, the Seychelles and Bangladesh.